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Harvard Accused of Lying on Status of Iconic 'Three Aces' Building

Harvard Accused of Lying on Status of Iconic 'Three Aces' Building

By Karen Klinger

For generations, a modest, one-story retail building at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Everett Street in Cambridge’s Agassiz neighborhood was a place where people could go to get a haircut, have something to eat, pick up their dry cleaning or find drugstore items.

In recent years, it was known as the “Three Aces” building for the pizza place that satisfied the late-night cravings of Harvard Law School students. But to long-time neighborhood residents it is still known as the “Bence Pharmacy” for the business that sold the property to Harvard University in 1988.

It’s empty now, except for “Fred the Barber,” as he’s known, or Fred Iannacone, who’s been cutting hair for 38 years in his “Central Barber Shop” in the middle of the building’s block. “They want me out too,” he said, “But I’m not going.”

“They” is his landlord, Harvard. Three years ago, Harvard told Crimson Cleaners that it had to leave, citing concerns about contamination caused by chemicals that had long been used on the site. Then, Harvard helped the clothing shop “Looks” relocate to Holyoke Street. A few weeks ago, Three Aces left, helped by Harvard’s offer of a “cash for keys” deal, Iannacone said.

Finally, Harvard came for him, even though he was in the middle of a five-year lease. He was given a year to leave. He didn’t see it coming. Neither did the Agassiz Neighborhood Council (ANC), which thought it had a deal with Harvard that any of the building’s tenants who wished to could have leases and renewals that would extend to at least 2017.

At their meeting on March 9, Cambridge city councilors wondered what was going on with the Three Aces building, especially since Councilor Craig Kelley noted that at the recent annual “Town-Gown” meeting, Harvard representatives said, essentially, “nothing.”

Now, they’ll know.

“Harvard has been very, very cagey the way they have dealt with this,” said Stephen Diamond, a director of the ANC. “Frankly, they have been disrespectful of the neighborhood and dishonest with us.”

When asked if Harvard’s actions could be characterized as those of a swaggering bully or a secretive Machiavelli, he answered, “Both.”

Iannacone is blunter.

“Harvard lies and lies,” he said. “They lie to the neighborhood, they lie to the tenants, they lie to the city and everybody lets them get away with it.

“People say, ‘Well, Harvard is good for the community.’ It’s not good for the community. They’re trying to put me out of business. They’ve put other businesses out. They’ll march up Mass Ave and put out more businesses. They can do what they want. How is that good?”

Many neighborhood residents thought Harvard’s concern with contamination was just an excuse when it told Crimson Cleaners to leave. Iannacone pulled out a copy of a letter he and the other remaining tenants received dated Aug. 8, 2007 from Charles O’Brien of the Harvard Real Estate Services telling them that while it needed to refurbish the portion of the building where the dry cleaners had been, “there is no reason to believe that there is an immediate problem or need to alter your space or the spaces occupied by the other tenants on this block.”

The letter went on to say that “Our first priority is to make the space clean and to confirm that it is safe for any future business. This work will begin in the week of August 6th (2007) and we hope to finish the project in January of 2008.”

It didn’t happen.

Iannacone said he has now been told that Harvard needs him to leave so it can carry out the long-delayed clean-up and unspecified “renovations.” But he was not given an opportunity to move back in after the work was completed. “No way, no how, nothing,” he said.

Harvard did offer him one of its “cash for keys” deals, but with a catch—a “no disclosure” clause that meant he could never say anything bad about his dealings with the university.

It made him angry. He said “no.” But in a stroke of luck, the nail shop “Fancy Fingers” in an adjacent building decided to move out and he’s now renting the place, renovating it and carrying two leases with the intention of moving in sometime after Jan. 1, 2010.

Mary Power, chief of community relations for Harvard, did not respond to an e-mail asking for comment. But Diamond said he and several other Agassiz residents planned to meet with her on March 10.

Said Iannacone, “I know how hard the neighborhood has worked to help everyone on this block stay in business and I really appreciate it. It’s hard to think that Harvard can just come in and say, ‘We don’t care about you.’ “

But he added, laughing, “I’m going to stay here as long as I can just to aggravate them.”

Comments

How about an architectural preservation zone for that portion of Mass. Ave. to preserve the buildings and tenants?

I worked as a kitchen hand in Bence's Pharmacy in the summer of 1966. They were famous for a drink with lime -- a name I no longer recall. They didn't allow us to take tips so we hid the nickels and dimes in the limes container.

One late Friday night, the owner had cleaned the grill and everything was neat and tidy. A man came in and demanded a hamburger sandwich. The boss was really dismayed. He pleaded with the customer that he had just cleaned the grill. but, no, the customer was demanding. He got his hamburger. It was a late night.

Maggie King (iaquinto@ozemail.com.au)